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This Chinese kindergarten was designed for the future but embraces the past

This Innovation by Design honoree built a kindergarten that highlights traditional architecture, so students can see that history is continuous.

This Chinese kindergarten was designed for the future but embraces the past
[Photo: courtesy MAD Architects]
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As a child, architect Ma Yansong found freedom on the roof. Growing up in a traditional courtyard house in Beijing, he’d often sneak up onto its sloped roof to look out at the world beyond. It’s this tiny moment of freedom that inspired his design of a new Beijing kindergarten, whose heart is on the rooftop.

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Doubling as the kindergarten’s playground, the roof is an undulating Martian landscape of reds, yellows and oranges that seems to float above the single-story school below. Built onto a rectangular block already partly occupied by a midrise building and a set of 400-year-old traditional courtyard houses, the kindergarten was designed by Yansong and his firm MAD Architects to spread across the site and fill in its empty spaces. Courtyard Kindergarten is the winner of our 2020 Innovation by Design award in the Spaces and Places category.

[Photo: Arch-Exist/courtesy MAD Architects]

Building around the courtyard houses was important for Yansong, who wanted to preserve a kind of traditional architecture that has been demolished in other parts of the city. He also wanted the historic buildings to provide a counterpoint to his unreservedly modern design.

“This was a project about time, how you see history, how new and old can combine together as one,” says Yansong, who’s known for his sleek, spaceship-like designs for the Harbin Opera House and the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. “My other architecture work, people often say this is futuristic, it’s coming from nowhere, and that’s my intention. But at the same time, [there’s] an interconnection and an inspiration I’ve learned from history. I think new and old can coexist together.”

Designed to accommodate 400 children ages 2 to 5, the kindergarten spreads out beneath the roof in one nearly continuous space, with no hard walls separating its classrooms. Yansong says he oriented the interior spaces around courtyards throughout the site as a way of recreating the kind of visibility and social interaction that’s common in traditional buildings like the one he grew up in.

[Photo: Arch-Exist/courtesy MAD Architects]
He also wanted the children to have close contact with the historic buildings on the site. The rooftop playground wraps directly around the buildings, and children can peer in on the ancient buildings’ courtyards and sloping roofs. On the ground floor, large floor-to-ceiling windows create the illusion of being able to reach out and touch the historic buildings’ walls. Whether seeing the buildings from the roof or from within the school’s interior spaces, Yansong says he wants the children to be exposed to old and new, to see the differences between the buildings, and maybe even the similarities.

“I really want the children that use this courtyard to tell how architecture changes through time. So they see the old building, they see the beauty of it, and also they see the beauty of the new architecture,” he says.

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Even young children can sense these differences, Yansong argues. “I think they will understand that history is not one moment, not one point, but it’s continuous,” he says. “And what’s important for them to see in Beijing, in China, at this moment, is to see the history from their own angle, and therefore they can realize that they have some obligation or responsibility to create their own future.”

See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.